Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and the Apple TV+ Adaptation

On March 29, 1997, I finished reading Forward the Foundation, the final entry in Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION series that he wrote himself, not long before he died in 1992. It was, I believe, the third time I’d read the complete series. The series is composed of 7 books, the first three of which were published in the 1950s, and the last four in the 1980s and early 1990s. Despite being published in the 1950, the first three books, the original FOUNDATION trilogy, were actually “fixups,” collections of stories that were original published in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s. I absolutely loved the series, and ultimately ended up reading the entire series at least 5 times.

That day in 1997, I wrote the following in my diary:

I’ll start on the new Foundation series–Foundation’s Fear. I must admit, I’m nervous about it. FOUNDATION is perfect as it is, as far as I can see–which is the way Asimov conceived it. I have only 2 reasons for reading Foundation’s Fear: (1) Janet Asimov approved it–it was originally her idea, which gives it some credibility; and (2) I am genuinely curious as to what happens next. So much, it seems was left with loose ends. I only hope that I don’t regret reading it. It’s strange, but once I read it, I can’t take that away, ignore it–but it’s a risk, I suppose, I’m willing to take.

The “new” Foundation series I referred to was the Second Foundation Trilogy, three books authored by big name science fiction writers. The first, Foundation’s Fear was written by Gregory Benford. The second, Foundation and Chaos was written by Greg Bear. And the third and final installment, Foundation’s Triumph was written by David Brin. Over the next three years, I did end up reading all three. Some were better than others, but I did not regret reading them. They were clearly fans of the original books, and they knew what Asimov was getting at and built upon it. Indeed, as it turned out, the last few pages of Brin’s Foundation’s Triumph, contained a brilliant exchange between two of the long time characters that harked back to the very first words of the original Foundation novel, and tied everything together. It was worth reading all three just for that. I was lucky enough to talk to David Brin in the SFWA suite at Chicon 7, tell him how much I loved that scene, and asked him about how he came up with it.

the 7 books asimov write in the foundation series
My collection of FOUNDATION paperbacks.

In October, Apple TV+ will release the first season of the long-awaited FOUNDATION television series. I’ve seen all three previews, and watching them stirs up a mixture of feelings. On the one hand, I feel that same sense of trepidation I felt back in March 1997 when deciding whether or not I’d read the new trilogy. On the other hand, I’m curious to know if the story can really be pulled off in this medium. I’m skeptical because I thought the film adaptation of Asimov’s I. Robot was terrible. It made no sense to make that particular film in that way, especially when Harlan Ellison had written an amazing screenplay of the same collection of stories that would have been perfect for production.

Watching the trailers, I was alarmed by the number of explosions I saw. For all of their galactic-spanning intrigue, the FOUNDATION novels were not about big battles but ideas. Indeed, people often complained the most of what happens in the books is (especially the first three) is a lot of talking. But sitting around talking doesn’t hook viewers, and television isn’t always about big ideas; instead, entertainment and special effects take center stage. I understand this, and I’m okay with it so long as the core structure of the story still holds.

His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before.

Those are the first words of the first Foundation novel. Clearly, some of the characters have been reinterpreted for television. Gaal Dornick, “just a country boy,” in the original Foundation novel, is a woman in the Apple TV+ series. I think this is good, too. A big critique of Asimov’s stories, especially the early ones, is that they were completely devoid of women. His excuse was that he was in his late teens and early twenties when writing these stories (he was 22 years old when the first Foundation story appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding), and he had no experience with women. To me, however, adaptations like this one–making Gaal a woman instead of a man–make the overall vision of a galactic empire much more realistic.

It turns out, looking at the casting of the series, that another significant character also appears as a woman: Eto Demerzel. First of all, I have to say that I was delighted to see that Demerzel appears in the Apple TV+ series. Readers of the entire series know all about Demerzel, and I won’t give away any spoilers. But I will say that it makes sense that Demerzel appears a woman in this adaptation. It would even have made sense in the books. To know why, you’ll either have to read the books, or ultimately, watch the Apple TV series (assuming they stay true to Demerzel’s character).

The first five books of the FOUNDATION series take place in chronological order. The final two books of the original series (and the three books of the Second Foundation trilogy) are prequels: they take place before the original FOUNDATION book. (Side note: one of the more popular evergreen posts I have here on the blog outside of my Going Paperless posts is a post I wrote on the best order in which to read the Foundation series.) Demerzel doesn’t show up until the sixth book in Asimov’s original series of seven. That means, though the first stories were written in 1941, Demerzel doesn’t show up in Foundation stories until the late 1980s. That Demerzel appears in the cast of the Apple TV+ series tells me the series is telling the story strictly chronologically, at least at first.

I’ve read some crazy theories over the years about how Asimov came up with the idea for Foundation and for psychohistory, the “science” that plays a central role within the story. Much of these theories ignore the available evidence: Asimov described exactly when and how he got the idea in the first volume of this autobiography:

On August 1, 1941, I took the subway to [John W.] Campbell’s office after class was over. On the way down I racked my brain for a story idea. Falling, I tried a device I sometimes used. I opened a book at random and then tried free association, beginning with whatever I first saw. The book I had with me was a collection of Gilbert and Sullivan plays. I opened it to Iolanthe–to the picture of the Fairy Queen throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis, the sentry. Thinking of sentries, I thought of soldiers, of military empires, of the Roman Empire–of the Galactic Empire–aha!

In Memory Yet Green, p.311

People also make the mistake of thinking the entire series had been planned out ahead of time, much like Robert Heinlein’s Future History series. In truth, Asimov said that Campbell loved the idea, but that it was too small for a short story, it needed to be an open-ended series of stories involving the fall of the First Galactic Empire and the rise of the Second Galactic Empire. He wanted Asimov to go home and write an outline for the entire series. About this, Asimov wrote,

I went home, dutifully, and began preparing an outline that got longer and longer and stupider and stupider until I finally tore it up. It was quite plain that I could work with an outline… I started the story I had originally intended to write… and the heck with possible future stories. I’d worry about them when the time came–and if the time came.

In Memory Yet Green, p.312

Over the decades, the lack of planning led to criticism that there were inconsistencies throughout the Foundation series. I always thought these inconsistencies were serendipitous. Consider: the entire Foundation saga is framed as being told from a time safely within the Second Galactic Empire. This is clear from the excerpts from the Encylopedia Galactica that are quoted throughout the books, the dates of which indicate being in the Foundation Era 1020, past the thousand years of dark ages. That is, whoever is telling the story is telling it long after the fall of the First Galactic Empire and after the thousand years of dark ages before the rise of the Second Galactic Empire. Of course there would be inconsistencies. A dark age separates the two empires, a time of chaos and disruption and war and strife. If would be incredible unlikely for the stories to be consistent given that context

Psychohistory, the science at the center of the Foundation novels, is simple in concept but complex in its implications: the man of history can be predicted through statistical analysis. In much the same way that Boyle’s Laws can predict the overall behavior of a volume of gas, but not the behavior of any one gas molecule, psychohistory can predict the overall behavior of all of humanity, but not the behavior of a single individual. At the time, this really seemed like science fiction. However, with AI algorithms that can predict what books you might be interested in (however poorly they may do so) or predict your morning route on a map based on patterns of your behavior, maybe it is not as farfetched as it seemed in 1942.

All of this is to say that there is a lot that has to fit into an adaptation of the books, and leaving seeming small things out can ultimately dictate the success or failure of the adaptation in the eyes of Asimov fans.

If I had to guess, I’d say that the first season will be centered around Seldon’s establishment of the Foundation, climaxing in the final episode with the revelation of the true purpose of the Foundation (and who its real enemy may be). Each subsequent season (assuming there is more than one) will focus on a new “psychohistorical crisis”. The logical choice for season 2 would be the introduction of the Mule–an idea that John Campbell pushed on Asimov and that Asimov took only reluctantly.

Over the course of my life, I’ve probably read more of Asimov’s writing than any other writer. Fiction was a small part of his overall output, which means I’ve read a lot more of his nonfiction, including thousands of his essays where he expressed his opinion on everything conceivable. While I may not be a scholarly expert on Asimov, I feel as if I am qualified, based on this exhaustive reading, to make the following claim: if Asimov were alive today, he would love the idea of this Apple TV+ series. I thought of this the other day when my friend Michael A. Burstein posted a video of Asimov being interviewed by David Letterman in 1980. In that interview, he talked about how he enjoyed movies like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. He joked that it was unfair because with 9 films planned, the last ones would likely come out after he was dead (they did). If Asimov had a blog today (he wouldn’t be on Twitter, but he’d definitely be a blogger) he’d be posting about the forthcoming series, reminding people that the series was coming out in October. He would be thrilled to see characters he created beginning in 1941 come to life on the screen with such spectacular effects, 80 years after he invented them.

Somehow, knowing in my heart that Asimov would have loved this series on Apple TV makes it not matter much to me whether I do or not. I hope I do, but as is the case with all adaptations, they can never really spoil the original. Those original books are right there on my shelf, and I can pick them up any time I want to.

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  1. It is my hope that the widespread exposure to Asimov’s seven Foundation novels, brought about by the soon-to-launch Apple TV+ video-streaming series, will lead many to seek to create a real psychohistory, and a real Foundation, at the scale of planet Earth, to avert, or to foreshorten, the New Dark Age — the likely Final Dark Age — that looms for planet Earth, due to the perversion, by the plutocracy, of the grassroots anti-pollution movement, into a ‘humanocidal’ “People are Pollution” ideology.

  2. I only ever read the original trilogy because as a kid in the early 80’s these were the only books translated into Danish (I didn’t start reading books in English until around 1990). Even back then I loved the story but had problems seeing how this could be made into a film or a TV-series. Now that shorter shows like 6-10 episode seasons are normal especially on the streaming services I think there is a better chance of it working.

    Still both looking forward to seeing how it will work out, but also scared that they will completely botch the story. I am most intrigued on how it will work considering there are characters as you mention from the prequels and Gaal is only listed as a young person, but at the same time you have Salvor Hardin who is his early 30’s when he takes power over Terminus and the Foundation 50 years after Hari Seldon starts the project. So either they are compressing the timeline or they are jumping back and forth between stories.

  3. How do you feel about them having Raych killing Harri and being executed instead of him dying off world in a battle to save his university (forward the foundation) and the fact that Raych does not have a wife and child (who is the basis for the second foundation also from forward the foundation) in the Apple+ version?
    I feel they went a bit far with this series. It is fun to watch but it is so far from Asimov’s writings that it should say that it is a series inspired by the foundation series. Asimov never had any grand space wars and the finding a a long lost mega war ship does not even exist in the Foundation series at all! Still it is fun to watch!

    1. Roy, well, it is an adaptation. Some things are different, but in both cases, Raych dies. I thought maybe his death would be faked as well, especially since Wanda is such an important character in the books. But, as we saw with the most recent issue (and as I predicted in my initial thoughts on the first 2 episodes), it looks like Gaal is going to take her place. This is a simplification for TV, but it makes sense since Gaal is also Hari’s biographer.

      As to grand space wars… well, I seem to recall a battle (mostly implied, and offstage) in “The Merchant Princes” (which was originally published in Astounding as “The Big and the Little”). Then, in “The Dead Hand” (published in Foundation and Empire as “The General”, we have a war between the Empire and the Foundation. This is all to say that while it was mostly offstage in the books, it was there, lurking, and something that those adapting the story decided to take advantage.

      I agree that it has been fun to watch and there is some depth in the adaptation that the stories themselves have always lacked.

  4. HI Jamie and thanks for the insights you’ve shared.

    Watching the TV series triggered my further interest in the novels – which I had only re-read last year – so I turned to the second Foundation trilogy which you mentioned above. I read those on publication and hadn’t picked them up since. TBH, I’m pretty stunned at how many of the ideas from this second trilogy were used in the TV series! For example, the space elevator and genetic duplication – key themes for the series – are first described here. It makes me wonder if the TV series will make use of the other themes – especially in Foundation’s Triumph – which describe the true origins of the Empire, chaos and the purpose of the Plan. (BTWm despite the very high churn of settings, I’d highly recommend this final volume by David Brin to any reader who wants to learn more about these aspects and for a richer description of the political structure of the empire.

    Has anyone else noticed the connections between the second trilogy and season 1 of the series?


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